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Tobacco Farmers Upset Fund Money Spent To Fix Budget

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Tobacco farmers went to the state Capitol Tuesday to vent their frustrations about money from the tobacco trust fund being used to balance the budget.

"A lot of the guys are a lot more cynical of the whole process and situations like this. I can sure understand why," said Johnny Barnes.

The Tobacco Trust Fund was established to help ease the tobacco industry through the tough economic times. It was part of the master settlement agreement between cigarette companies that then-state Attorney General Mike Easley signed in 1998. At the time, most claimed they thought the trust fund was safe. Years later, Easley, now governor, is looking to take money from the fund to help solve the state's budget crisis.

"Well, let's see. He took $30 million in April. He took $50 million in June and has proposed to take $40 million of which part of it doesn't even exist for next year," Barnes said.

"A lot of us in eastern North Carolina wanted to put all of the money in trusts, so that future legislators or governors could not raid this money," said Sen. Allan Wellons, D-Johnston County.

"Well, I'm no attorney, but it seems like the man who set it up knew how to also unlock the door," tobacco farmer Richard Renegar said.

Barnes said he found out about the June withdrawal after the money was already gone.

"The $58 million we had in our bank account two days ago is now $8 million. The governor reached in and took $50 million out last night and hasn't said anything to anybody," he said.

The Tobacco Trust Fund was designated to receive 25 percent of the money from the national tobacco settlement, which would have been more than $1 billion over 25 years.


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